Demand for democracy follows socio-economic transformation

By Francis Loh, Aliran

Many researchers of contemporary Malaysian politics, even more so ordinary Malaysians, take off from the perspective that Malaysia is a ‘plural society’ wherein two or more races live side-by-side within a political unit and yet do not intermingle, except in the market place.

Although J. S. Furnivall first coined the term in his study of British and Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia, most researchers ignore the fact that he discusses the emergence of ‘plural societies’, which he defines as lacking a common sense of cultural belonging, within the context of the rise of capitalism in colonial societies, dominated by a colonial power. Put another way, Furnivall situates his ‘plural society’ in the context of a changing society and economy.

‘Plural society’ explanation inadequate

In this regard, although these researchers use the notion of plural society, in fact, their perspective is more closely related to the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘primordialism’ which refers to strong ineffable sentiments and attachments based on the ‘social givens’ of human existence, like blood relations, kinship, tribe, race, language, dialect, religion, social customs and region. For Geertz, primordialism is invoked to provide meaning and solace to ordinary people when their societies are undergoing rapid change.

In multi-ethnic societies like Malaysia, however, primordialism can lead to a heightening of ethnic group consciousness that threatens the nation-building process. Hence, an ‘integrative revolution’ that ushers in ‘civic politics’ is required, in order to prevent the break-up of these multi-ethnic nations.

In Geertz’s perspective, politics in a plural or multi-ethnic society is fractured along ethnic lines, and ethnic-based communities with recognisable leaders as well as common political interests and goals quite naturally emerge. It follows that electoral politics, too, is presumed to be ethnically determined and that voters, invariably, vote along ethnic lines. In a nutshell, the ethnic order of things is a ‘given’, almost natural.

‘Consociationalism’ explanations also inadequate

To explain why the Barisan Nasional (previously the Alliance), a coalition of ethnic-based political parties, has ruled Malaysia since Merdeka in 1957, these researchers emphasise, or even essentialise, the BN parties and their leaders as inherently more moderate in outlook and more prepared to share power than their Opposition counterparts, who are characterised as extremist, narrow-minded and unwilling to share power. This is why the BN has come out tops time-and-time again.

This is the ‘consociational model’ of politics, wherein the masses in a plural society are awash with communalism, the Opposition leaders are extremist and exclusivist in their views, and political stability and economic development can only be attained because of the altruistic and tolerant BN ruling elites. The theme of consociationalism is very popular, too, among researchers. Thanks to the propaganda disseminated via our schools, the mainstream media and the BN parties, the impression of a moderate BN and an extremist Opposition (Pas, DAP, PKR, PSM, etc) has also penetrated into the popular imagination of ordinary Malaysians

Such a perspective underscores explanations of the BN’s domination of Malaysian electoral politics. Often, references are also made to specific issues, episodes and events that occur when elections are held to explain variations in the BN’s victories, sometimes spectacular, other times less so.

For instance, the BN’s narrow victory in the 1999 general election was attributed to the ‘dual crises’ which occurred in the run up to that election viz. the regional financial crisis of 1997/98 and the political crisis resulting from then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking from Umno, both contributing towards a reformasi movement.

In 2004, the BN’s spectacular victory was explained in terms of the ‘Pak Lah factor’, namely, the ascendancy of Abdullah Badawi as Malaysia’s new prime minister just prior to the 2004 polls, replacing Dr Mahathir Mohamed who had been at the helm for 22 years. It was Abdullah who led the BN into the 2004 polls and, apparently due to his more endearing political style and several reform initiatives, ensured a spectacular victory for the BN. Many Christians seemed to be taken up by the fact the Malaysian PM had for the first time sent Christmas greeting cards to church leaders. Many Malaysians were also enamoured by his catchy slogans such as “Work with me; not for me”.